A Brief History
On August 5, 1620, 2 small English sailing ships left Southampton Water in England on a trip to the New World, carrying a group of Puritans seeking a land where they could practice their brand of religion without interference. The larger of the 2 ships, the Mayflower, has gone down in history as one of the most famous ships in the English speaking world, while the other, the Speedwell, became an historical afterthought. On July 22, 1620, the pinnace Speedwell left Delfshaven, now part of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, with a cargo of English Pilgrims bound for the New World. The ship was to link up with the Mayflower in England for what would become a famous voyage bringing European settlers to Plymouth Rock in North America. Alas, Speedwell did not “speed well” and had to turn back due to severe leaking.
A smallish ship of only 60 tons, the Speedwell was only one third the tonnage of Mayflower, which itself was a small ship only about 90 feet long on the main deck. The Mayflower was carrying a crew of around 30 men and perhaps 90 passengers, while Speedwell was transporting perhaps 30-32 passengers or so. Speedwell had picked up her load of religious dissidents in South Holland where they had gone to escape religious persecution in England. She was originally built as a single masted pinnace named Swiftsure in 1577, later taking part in the defense of England against the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1605, Swiftsure was decommissioned and renamed Speedwell. Prior to the 1620 voyage, Speedwell was refitted with a second mast.
Soon after leaving England on August 5, 1620, Speedwell and Mayflower aborted their voyage and returned to port to repair the leaking Speedwell. Once more sailing for the New World, Speedwell again began seriously leaking after traveling only about 300 nautical miles. (Note: A nautical mile measures 6076 feet, while a statute mile, the measure we normally use, spans 5280 feet.) The 2 ship flotilla turned back once again, and this time 12 passengers from Speedwell joined the passengers on Mayflower to resume the voyage. Speedwell remained in port and her 20 remaining passengers left for London. Mayflower left England for a third time on September 6, 1620, and arrived at what became the Plymouth Colony, what today is Massachusetts, in November of 1620. Arriving when snow was already falling, the Pilgrims faced severe hardships and have become an essential part of the American historical legend, as has the Mayflower. While the Mayflower has become the very symbol of the colonization of North America by Europeans, the actual facts are that many other settlements predated Plymouth Colony. Meanwhile, Speedwell was replaced as a transport to Plymouth Colony by Fortune, another small ship, that carried 35 more colonists to Plymouth in 1621. Speedwell became a mere footnote in history, a nearly forgotten ship that could have been famous.
Speculation about what caused the leaking in Speedwell is inconclusive, but the addition of a second mast may have caused extra strain on the ship and its timbers, resulting in leakage. Other writers have opined that the crew somehow caused the leaking and yet another cause for the leak put forward was that a particular defective board of only 2 feet in length was to blame. The fate of this particular ship is unavailable to this author, though a ship named Speedwell is documented to have traveled to Boston in 1656, carrying Quakers to the Colonies. Another ship named Speedwell was built in 1663, in England, which implies that the original ship that we have discussed was probably no longer extant at that time. Other references to ships named Speedwell have also followed the building of the 1663 vessel, though it is unknown if they are the same ship. In all, at least 15 English and Royal Navy ships have borne the name Speedwell, a name decidedly not famous in the United States, though it almost was!
Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of any other ships that narrowly missed out on becoming famous? If so, please tell us which ship or ships you have in mind in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Fraser, Rebecca. The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Banner of Truth, 2014.
Stratton, Eugene. Plymouth Colony: Its History and People: 1620-1691. A.com, 2013.
The featured image in this article, an oil painting by Robert W. Weir (photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol) titled The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, US Capitol Rotunda, is a work of an employee of the Architect of the Capitol, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, all images created or made by the Architect of the Capitol are in the public domain in the United States.